The Devil and Henry Dumas
A lost voice of the Black Arts Movement
Oct 4, 2004
15 Min read time
Echo Tree: The Collected Short Fiction of Henry Dumas
edited by Eugene B. Redmond
Coffee House Press, $15.95 (paper)
It is hard to think about Henry Dumas without being haunted by the mystery of his early death. On May 23, 1968, Dumas was seated in a Harlem subway station awaiting his train, fresh from a rehearsal of Sun Ra’s Arkestra (Sun Ra was a good friend, and his experimental jazz was a strong influence on Dumas’s own version of Afro-surrealism). Then, after some sort of confrontation—perhaps involving a case of mistaken identity—a New York Transit Authority policeman shot and killed the 33-year-old Dumas. The circumstances remain murky and probably always will, since there was little investigation into the incident at the time. There had been much civil unrest and many confrontations between the police and black people since the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. seven weeks earlier, and Dumas was just a minor writer whose work had appeared in journals off the radar of the mainstream population—small, civil rights–friendly magazines like Freedomways, Negro Digest, and Umbra.
There’s something sobering, even chilling, in the way that Dumas’s work—which patiently diagnosed the violence of everyday life in America and imaginatively searched for a way out of old cycles of revenge and retribution—could not keep him from becoming a casualty of the very forces he diagnosed. That he died so soon after King was a brutal but fitting coincidence—and, in another twist of fate, was part of the wrenching pressures that led many black radicals to reconsider their commitment to nonviolent protest in the mid-to-late ’60s.
Now, with the publication of Dumas’s collected short stories in Echo Tree, readers can take some measure of the loss, and also of the legacy. Dumas was a movement writer, and his fiction underscores the wide range of energies unloosed by the civil-rights and Black Power movements. A vital member of the writers’ groups that were at the core of the Black Arts movement, the cultural wing of Black Power, Dumas was inspired by the call to “speak black truth to white power”; he steeped himself in African-American and African folklore to get a deeper sense of his cultural inheritance and pass it on. Yet to appreciate Dumas as a Black Arts figure means also, as John S. Wright suggests in Echo Tree’s perceptive introduction, to reappraise that cultural movement; we need to clear a space free of the familiar images of righteous militancy (Huey on his throne with a rifle to his right and a spear to his left, Angela with her fist in the air) that have become shorthand for the black radicalism of the late ’60s and early ’70s.
Dumas’s truth came in riddles—fiction that was at once elusive and persuasive. Dumas’s stories are parables by and large, and they reveal the wildly speculative and broodingly contemplative aspects of the Black Arts movement. By turns droll, poignant, surreal, and unflinching in their examination of the rituals and ordeals of black life, the stories are united mostly by their refusal to revel in anything except the richness of the imagination. Dumas’s preference for open-ended tales may help explain how he has attracted a crowd of admirers—Toni Morrison, Ishmael Reed, Maya Angelou, Melvin Van Peebles, Amiri Baraka, Gwendolyn Brooks, Jayne Cortez, Arnold Rampersad—who agree on little beyond their enthusiasm for his work. Dumas’s writing can be a point of origin for any number of journeys.
Take “Devil Bird,” which, like many of Echo Tree’s tales, revolves around a scene of puzzling initiation and works by teasing the reader into a state of ethical uncertainty. At the beginning of the story, a young boy is interrupted while reading a comic book—an illustrated version of the David and Goliath tale—by a knock on the door. His father opens it without asking who’s there, as if he were expecting someone, and Satan walks in. He wears iridescent formal clothes, prances around with a tapering rod that ignites anything it touches, and trails a gust of hot air. The Devil has come, as it happens, to play a game of whist, whose outcome seems to bear on the fate of the boy’s grandfather, a minister who is bedridden and groaning with pain in the next room.
At this point the story becomes truly curious—more than a morality tale with sparkling costumes and inventive props. There is another knock on the door, and God arrives in the person of Satan’s whist partner, a tall man with dimmed eyes, hunched posture, and shabby clothes. After much consultation with a rulebook that occupies pride of place in the front room, God and the Devil join together in their card game against the boy’s parents and, as might be expected, start routing them. The grandfather rises from his bed and takes over for the mother at the table, but he is so weak that he can barely hold his cards, and anyway, he prefers to cry out for God to forgive and bless the Negro people than to play the game. But the game must be played: the Devil conjures up a crow with his rod and, as the grandfather appeals for God’s mercy, the bird hops about on the tabletop, picking out cards from the grandfather’s hand with his beak and playing them, all the while bowing like a vaudeville performer trying to milk his audience for applause. Soon the game is lost; God and the Devil escort the grandfather away to his fate. Frustrated and angry, the boy seizes the Devil’s rod and chases the bird, which disappears in a puff of foul smoke when the boy jabs it. But the boy is haunted by the bird’s final protest—“You must remember that I am a prophet, and not a bird”—and by the mystery of the bird’s voice. It sounds like someone he knows, but who?
“Devil Bird” has all the hallmarks of Dumas’s short fiction: it avoids the register of conventional realism and works in a realm of fantasy that can be ridiculous, terrifying, or both at once; the motivations of its characters are at times intricately drawn and at others subsumed into the broad humor of the folk tale; it is supremely concerned with ethics but delivers its ethical lesson in the form of an unresolved and provocative parable; and it is narrated by someone young and unprepared for the strange knowledge coming his way yet who has no choice but to be initiated into it. The young boy here wishes to believe in the story of David and Goliath, a parable of the underdog’s triumph, but instead has to grapple with a moral universe in which God and the Devil are business partners, in which even the most upright souls have struck a Faustian bargain, and in which fate is bound up with the luck of the draw. To move from the comic book to the rulebook is to move from childhood to adulthood—but an adulthood haunted by the teasing spirit of the blues, here embodied in a trickster crow that performs the devil’s bidding and wants credit for doing it with style. The bird may be the voice of the devil, but it is not the devil’s only voice. We as readers are sad to see the farcical bird disappear in a cloud of sulfurous smoke, perhaps even sadder than we are to see the ever-pious grandfather make his forced exit. Our allegiances, like the boy’s, are everywhere and nowhere at once.
“Devil Bird” may be typical Dumas, but none of the 31 stories in Echo Tree can stand fully for the rest. Echo Tree is a grab bag of forms, and its range reveals a writer given to experimentation. Eugene B. Redmond must be commended for his dogged 35-year dedication to the manuscripts that Dumas left behind at his death, which have now resulted in two collections of short stories (Ark of Bones, Rope of Wind), a pieced-together novel (Jonoah and the Green Stone), a collection of poetry (Play Ebony Play Ivory), and one omnibus collection (Goodbye, Sweetwater). Given that the Dumas archive has already been so deeply mined, it is surprising to discover here a vein that was waiting to be tapped—seven previously unpublished stories, at least one of which (“Scout”) is among Dumas’s finest.
Unfortunately, what Redmond has not given us, perhaps since Dumas had no chance to organize his papers and reveal such things, is a historical account of Dumas’s trajectory as a writer. The stories are organized along chains of thematic resonance—a set of Arkansas stories is grouped together, for example—but not in any kind of chronological order; there are no notes to document where a story first appeared in print, no notes to explain which tales were written in the early ’60s and which were written later (although most of the stories set in New York City feel very much post–Watts riots). And the stories themselves, running the gamut from visionary science fiction to well-wrought tales that end in Joycean anticlimax, do not offer up a clear sense of before and after. A sympathetic reader might say that the organization of Echo Tree reveals the open-ended nature of Dumas’s quest rather than any particular sequence of his solutions. But reading Echo Tree cover to cover is a disorienting experience; one is tossed from genre to genre without much sense of direction.
The great dividing line in Dumas’s work may be between those fictions that admit the supernatural and those that do not. Dumas considered himself one of Sun Ra’s coreligionists, and the supernatural side of his work can be seen as the literary equivalent of Sun Ra’s music, motivated as it is by the desire to re-enchant the world by offering up an alternative cosmology. For Sun Ra, re-enchantment meant taking his Arkestra and his audience on a sonic journey to Saturn, a theosophical paradise realized through the Afro-futurist ritual of his concerts; Sun Ra (born Herman Blount) claimed that he was gifted with this vision of an alternate reality by being born on Saturn, and he never stepped out of character, never became Mr. Blount for a day.
Likewise, in Dumas’s tales of the supernatural, the magic is meant to be believed; we get little of the narrative undecidability of the modernist ghost story, in which the reader is torn between rational and supernatural explanations for the trembling of the floorboards and the whistling of the wind (think The Turn of the Screw). In fact, we are led to believe that we doubt this magic at our own risk. In “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” three white fans of the jazz saxophonist Probe think they can withstand the higher vibrations of his enchanted saxophone but find themselves lulled into the sleep of death when he lets loose with his music. And in “Echo Tree” a boy who refuses to believe that his dead brother Leo still has a spirit life is threatened with being turned into a “bino”—a fate so horrible that it can only be named, not described. As these two examples suggest, in Dumas’s short stories soullessness is identified with whiteness, which in turn is linked to a skepticism about the world of the occult.
Magic offers a way of giving power to the powerless, and certainly this is one function of magic in the stories—to exact a kind of decisive justice, as when, in “Fon,” flaming arrows whiz from the sky and dispatch a group of would-be lynchers. At the same time, most of Dumas’s supernatural tales do not give easy comfort to the afflicted: in “Devil Bird,” the rulebook is able to be rewritten, its injunctions tailored to the occasion, and the implication is that the power of magic, like the power of writing, is morally ambiguous. In “The Bewitching Bag, or How the Man Escaped from Hell,” a man must learn to use the Devil’s own magic bag to break out of his clutches. And even the most benevolent magic in Dumas has a kind of unsettling force, since it is connected to a traumatic and repressed history. In “Ark of Bones,” perhaps Dumas’s most famous tale, the young narrator is visited along the Mississippi’s edge by a huge “soulboat,” a vessel whose lower chambers are full of human bones, scrupulously stacked and organized; he then watches spellbound as the boatmen pull more bones from the river. The tale brings the horror of the Middle Passage into the present, connecting the human losses of the slave trade with the brutalities of the Jim Crow south, and its ending seems to underline the difficulty of living out the obligations of that vision: the narrator’s friend Headeye is called to join the boat and is never heard from or seen again. While the story does not rue Headeye’s disappearance, it is built on the irony that Headeye’s urge to commemorate the past turns him, in effect, into another ghost. By communing with the dead, Headeye steps out of time—and out of the world of the living.
Most of Dumas’s supernatural tales are set in the South, anticipating the regionalist turn of black writers in the 1970s, when many novelists took up Alice Walker’s advice to go “in search of our mothers’ gardens” and began setting their work in a vividly imagined South full of neighborliness, folk wisdom, and unfinished spiritual business. Toni Morrison in particular was a key booster of Dumas’s legacy during her tenure as an editor at Random House (she published Dumas’s first two books), and Echo Tree makes clear the affinity between the two writers: both set their fiction in closed, village-like worlds, where kids travel in packs, neighbors are neighbors, and the mass media is nowhere in evidence; and both are interested in bringing together in their characters the wisdom of practical “good sense” and of superstition. Yet Dumas’s village is also quite different from Morrison’s, and not simply because Dumas tends to put the plight of young men at the center of his fictions. Dumas’s stories often end with an intimation of pained wisdom, as if making a concerted effort to avoid an inspiring cadence, rather than with the promise of transcendence or the discovery of a beloved community. In “Fon,” for instance, the character who is saved from a lynching marches off into the night, kicking the earth; in “Thrust Counter Thrust” the young man at its center ponders how he has lost his brother to the army and observes that “the stars were out like frozen tears.” The magic-realist strain in Dumas injects impossible events into the narrative, since it is through the impossible event that the wrenching paradoxes of history are revealed; but the magic is not so powerful that it procures an uplifting ending.
What does it say, then, that Dumas’s Northern tales, which make up a third of the collection, rarely have recourse to magic? In these stories, the violence is more diffuse and the villains harder to locate, but the overall mood tends to be bleaker than in the Southern tales. Here Dumas seems to have been interested in the poetics of insurrection—what brings a group of people to question their allegiance to the state, how they act on that disaffection, and how those actions are then subsumed into a narrative of the past. (As one of his newly discovered stories asks in its title, “Riot or Revolt?”) Several of these fictions feel less finished than the others—fragments that clutch at an atmosphere but have a negligible narrative arc. “Strike and Fade,” for instance, is a characteristic Dumas tale of initiation, here told from the point of view of a young man looking for instruction from a Vietnam veteran on the art of guerrilla resistance, but its brevity (five pages) speaks to the thinness of its description: the veteran’s advice—“If you don’t organize you ain’t nothin but a rioter, a looter”—is absorbed and then acted upon, as if self-organization were a simple matter of will. While magic spirits work as forces of unity in the Southern tales, here the higher consciousness of shared struggle does the heavy lifting, and it is heavy indeed. Perhaps Dumas, as a committed political activist, turned to realism in these Northern tales because he wished to offer up a blueprint for revolution, but the problem with a blueprint from a reader’s perspective is precisely its schematic quality. Dumas’s tales of the fantastic are, in their own way, more believable than some of these Northern fictions.
We will never know how Dumas would have responded to the twists of late-’60s and early-’70s culture—the proliferation of groups aspiring to leadership of the black community, the emergence of a radical black feminist movement, the surprising popularity of soul music and blaxploitation film—but Echo Tree suggests that he was at his best when he allowed himself to be less than fully serious, when he explored the dialogue between pleasure and pain. The story “Scout” turns that dialogue into a bit of sparkling repartee: it pivots on a tale told by a scoutmaster to a scout, wherein the scoutmaster—as a young boy of the narrator’s age—finds himself repeatedly humiliated on the day of a Juneteenth parade. Given money by his parents, the scoutmaster hopes to go and buy “scouting equipment” but is instead lured up to an apartment, where a young woman engages him in a cat-and-mouse game of seduction, teasing him for his naivete and eventually ejecting him; then, in the streets of the city, he is attacked and robbed by another scout, who has the amazing sense to know that he is carrying his money in his shoe.
The story ends with a mystery: did the scoutmaster, after being robbed, return to the apartment and the woman, and is that why he recounts the story with private bemusement? Or is it because he has the distance to see the initiation in all its rough-and-tumble comedy? The narrator cannot say, but he has also just heard a Juneteenth sermon on the street that gives its own parabolic answer: “If a man knows where he’s going, and he’s guidin’ himself, then he’s a free man. If a man is free, he is alone, yet among free men, loneliness is a bond.” The scoutmaster and his scout tramp off through the city, together and alone at once, under a “strange flame” of moonlight that suggests Dumas’s unique mode of illumination.
October 04, 2004
15 Min read time